June 24, 2009
Jesus, Spartacus, and Monty Python
The story of Spartacus reverses the Jesus myth: instead of getting sold out by his followers and dying a terrible death on the cross, Spartacus is protected by his troops, who are prepared to endure crucifixion rather than reveal the leader hidden in their ranks.And then Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) came along and put the two stories together. At the end of that film, Brian is crucified along with dozens of other Jews (and at least one Samaritan), but then a soldier comes along, asking who Brian is so that Brian can be taken down from the cross. And whereas the extras in one movie all yelled "I'm Spartacus!" as a sign of self-sacrificial solidarity with their leader, the extras in the other movie all yell "I'm Brian!" as a way of selfishly trying to save their own skins, at the expense of the genuine Brian's life.
It's also interesting to consider that Spartacus was written by people who had an active interest in progressive politics -- the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, almost didn't receive any credit for the film because of the 1950s blacklist -- so it may reflect some of that left-leaning idealism, whereas Life of Brian devotes a fair bit of screen time to mocking British left-wing politics, albeit in first-century Judean garb.
I don't think the Pythons were anti-liberal, by any stretch, but I do think they were somewhat cynical about the ability of humans as a whole to rise above their own self-centredness. And so, in a roundabout way, they brought the story of Spartacus back to the story of Jesus, as the "hero" of their story is exploited and abandoned by nearly everyone he meets.
It's kind of like how Life of Brian is the only movie I can think of that draws our attention to the ungrateful people who were healed by Jesus. Most life-of-Jesus movies flatter their audiences by suggesting that everyone who was healed would have expressed their gratitude -- just like we would have done, right? Right? But what about, say, the ex-lepers who didn't thank Jesus for healing them? What about the people who just went on to the next thing and possibly even resented Jesus for changing the status quo in their lives?
Anyway. I love Spartacus, and I love Life of Brian. I need the idealism, and I need the skepticism, or even the cynicism. Somewhere between the two lies reality -- and indeed, I find ample helpings of both in the story of Jesus himself.